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FRAMINGHAM – On Sunday, the Framingham History Center hosted an event called Diplomat in China: Framingham’s Peter Parker. It detailed the life of Peter Parker, a Framingham man, who became a medical missionary in China and helped to establish the first diplomatic ties between the Qing Empire of China and the United States.

The presentation was done by Dana Dauterman Ricciardi who is the Framingham History Center‘s Curator Emerita.

The presentation was connected to the History Center’s current exhibition, Framingham’s Top 10, which features Peter Parker’s 19th-century diplomatic uniform that has recently been restorated. The current exhibition is on display until 2021 and a virtual version of it is available at the Framingham History Center’s website.

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Peter Parker was born in Framingham on June 18, 1804, and grew up on his family’s house and farm on Salem End Road.

He was a descendant of the Salem Witch Trial refugees who settled in Framingham.

He attended Framingham Academy and the First Parish Church, where he met his mentor, the Reverend Dr. David Kellog, who pushed him towards a career in the ministry. To pay for college, Parker started teaching in Westborough, Grafton, and Framingham

In 1826, he attended the young Amherst College before transferring to Yale where he graduated with a B.A. in 1831. During his senior year, he became interested in doing foreign missionary work and wrote to the American Board of Foreign Missionaries (ABFM) of his interests in working in either China or Turkey. The board approved of his offer to do missionary work in China, and he proceeded to read up on Chinese culture and language.

He then, by the interests of the ABFM, pursued graduate studies in both theological studies and medicine, earning his MD from Yale Medical School (then called the Medical Institution of Yale College) and become ordained as a Presbyterian minister in 1834.

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He was allowed free passage due to his status as a missionary on the ship Morrison in June 1834. The voyage took a total of 4 and a half months in which he arrived in Macau in October of that same year. He then proceeded to travel to Canton.

Canton, now translated today through the Pinyin romanization as the city of Guangzhou, was the home of the aptly-named Canton System, which were a series of rules that foreign traders, merchants, and visitors had to follow. Foreign trade was only allowed in the port of Canton. They had to trade through Chinese merchants, called the co-hong. They were only permitted during a 6 month period known as the summer season. No foreign women were allowed to accompany the traders to China. They were not permitted to travel in China beyond Canton. They were also to be no diplomatic relationship between China and the foreigners’ countries

To have a better understanding of the Chinese language and culture, Parker moved to Singapore to a Chinese colony for 9 months. When he returned to Canton in November 1835, he opened the first Western-style hospital in China, naming it Pok Tsai which means universal helpfulness. Seeing that the locals had a lot of eye diseases and disorders, he decided to center the hospital around that specialty, making him Yale’s first opthalmologist.

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Parker was extremely dedicated to providing medical care to all who came to visit his hospitals, including Americans, Europeans, and Chinese. In the first 90 days of the hospital being opened, Parker treated 825 patients. While the hospital was founded for treating eye diseases, he received patients with many types of ailments, most commonly tumors. He eventually trained surgical apprentices in China, effectively establishing the first medical schools in China. The patients were not charged for medical services. Instead, Parker helped establish the Medical Missionary Society of China in February of 1837. It was designed to raise financial support for medical missions and allow for free-of-charge services.

One of Parker’s first apprentices, Kwan Ato, had an uncle named Lam Qua. Lam Qua was trained in Western-style painting via the British painter George Chinnery. He was commissioned for his painting services to the hospital and was asked to paint patients, particularity ones with large tumors or deformities, in order to have the images for future medical study. Some of the paintings are now part of a collection of Qua’s work found at Yale University’s Harvey Cushing/John Hay Whitney Medical Library. The namesake of the library, the skilled Army surgeon Harvey Cushing, is also the namesake of both Cushing Memorial Park and Harvey J Cushing Way in Framingham.

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Parker’s work as one of the leading surgeons in China earned him visits by high ranking Chinese officials in the Civil Service. He started to make friendships with them that would benefit both him and the United States in its diplomatic work.

During Parker’s work, the First Opium War broke out. Fearing for their lives, many foreign traders and merchants returned home to avoid being in the crossfire. Parker sailed from Macau to New York City on the Niantic, experiencing a 5-month voyage home.

After spending a few days in New York City, Parker traveled back to Framingham in order to reunite his family members on the Parker Family Farm. During that time, he was urged by Yale’s President Day to come to Yale for an urgent meeting. President Day expressed concern that the outcome of the Opium War would result in the US being cut off from trading in China. He urged Parker to plead a case of diplomacy between the United States and the Chinese Empire in Washington DC.

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When he arrived in Washington DC, Parker met with President Martin Van Buren and incoming Secretary of State Daniel Webster and urged them to establish formal relations with China, expressing the fear of a cutoff of trade. During his talk with Van Buren and Webster, Parker met Harriet Colby Webster, who he married after a courtship of fewer than 4 months. Parker also traveled to England, Scotland, and France to plead the case of diplomacy. After the war, Harriet Parker sailed to China with her husband and became the first Western woman to be permitted in China under the Canton System.

In the 1840s, Parker accomplished many medical firsts in China. In 1844, he performed the first kidney stone removal. In 1847, he introduced Western anesthesia in the form of sulfur ester. In 1848, he introduced chloroform as a safer alternative.

He and his wife’s reputation soon had them being given various gifts and mementos by former patients. Parker chose not to accept many of these mementos, passing them off to friends back in America. One of these mementos, a lacquer chair, was given to his close friend, the future President Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln liked the chair so much that when he became President in 1861 and moved to the White House, he brought the chair with him and used it in the Oval Office.

After the Opium War, the United States sent the first diplomatic representative with the title of Commissioner in 1843. The first American Commissioner to China was Caleb Cushing, who was a Massachusetts senator and friend of Parker’s. Cushing was charged with establishing a treaty that would open more Chinese ports to Americans. Parker was asked by Cushing to be the Chinese Secretary to the Mission and Confidential Advisor. That treaty would be eventually signed in July of 1844 and became known as the Treaty of Wangxia. Three of the four Chinese officials attending were either personal friends or former patients of Parker’s.

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Some of the treaty’s provisions allowed for four additional ports to be opened to foreign commerce, including Shanghai, tariffs were to be fixed and not adjustable by the Emperor, Americans in China would be tried for crimes by their own consular officers, the opium trade was declared illegal for American merchants, and American citizens were permitted to acquire houses, places of business, hospitals, churches, and cemeteries in China.

His appointment soon became the start of his diplomatic career for the United States. In 1845, he was officially appointed as Secretary and Chinese Interpreter to the US Embassy. In 1847, he was appointed interim Charge d’Affaires and become acting Commissioner.

Because of his diplomatic and medical work, the American Board of Foreign Missionaries rescinded his medical missionary status. They believed that because he spent so much time in either the hospital or the embassy, he had not converted as many Chinese citizens to Christianity as they had hoped for.

In 1855, Parker became the US Commissioner to China and helped to establish an American diplomatic mission at the Chinese court. He finally retired from the diplomatic service in 1857.

After he retired, he became an unofficial advisor to President Abraham Lincoln. After Lincoln was assassinated, he became the regent of the Smithsonian Institution in 1868. He also helped to establish the Evangelical Alliance in 1871. He finally passed away on January 10, 1888, in Washington, DC.

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Parker represented the first of what would become known as scientific diplomats.

Parker was not trained in traditional fields such as political science or history. Instead, Parker pursued a career of medicine that earned him a reputation and many friendships throughout China for his work. Western medicine and medical school training were introduced by Parker and still present in China today. That reputation throughout his scientific and medical career allowed for the US to establish diplomatic ties with an isolationist country that is still kept to this day, despite the much-complicated history between the two nations.

Parker’s legacy continues on through the recruitment of scientifically and technically trained Foreign Service Officers, Foreign Area Officers, and the many scientific attaches who instruct the US Ambassadors around the world on issues pertaining to science and technology and who have helped to make formal ties between international scientific organizations and academies.


Photos courtesy of Boston University & Framingham History Center